2022 UT 12
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH
STATE OF UTAH, in the Interest of J.A.L. and J.O.L.,
Persons Under Eighteen Years of Age
J.L. and J.A.,
STATE OF UTAH,
Heard September 16, 2021
Filed February 24, 2022
On Certification from the Court of Appeals
Fifth District Juvenile, Iron County
The Honorable Troy A. Little
No. 1161641, 1161642
Alexandra Mareschal, J. Frederic Voros, Jr., Julie J. Nelson, Salt Lake
City, Christa G. Nelson, Cedar City, for appellant J.L.
Colleen K. Coebergh, Salt Lake City, Candice N. Reid, Cedar City,
for appellant J.A.
Sean D. Reyes, Att’y Gen., Carol L. C. Verdoia, John M. Peterson,
Asst. Att’ys Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee
Martha Pierce, Salt Lake City, Guardian ad Litem
for J.A.L. and J.O.L.
ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE authored the opinion of the Court in
which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, JUSTICE HIMONAS, JUSTICE PEARCE, and
JUSTICE PETERSEN joined.
ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE, opinion of the Court:
¶1 This is an appeal from a juvenile court order terminating the parental rights of the mother and father of two children. The Division of Child and Family Services has been engaged with this family since at least July 2018. A range of support services has been provided over time. The children were removed from the mother’s custody in December 2018 and placed in foster care. And at various times both the father and mother have been subject to a court order prohibiting contact between them and to orders requiring treatment for domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health issues.
¶2 The Division initially pursued a permanency goal of reunification with the parents. When reunification failed, the Division petitioned to change the goal to adoption. After a hearing and an order granting the new permanency goal, the children were moved to a kinship placement with the father’s brother in Arkansas. The uncle had agreed to adopt the children. And after a subsequent hearing on the termination of parental rights, the juvenile court entered an order terminating the parental rights of both the mother and father.
¶3 In the termination proceeding, the juvenile court found that both parents were “unfit” and had “neglected” the children. The court based its determination on factors listed in Utah Code section 78A-6-508(2)—concluding that the children were “abused and neglected” by “[t]he domestic violence perpetrated by the Father and the Mother’s failure to protect the children,” and that the parents’ substance abuse “render[ed] [them] unable to care for the children.”
¶4 After finding statutory grounds to terminate, the court determined that termination was “strictly necessary” in the “best interest” of the children. It concluded that the children could not be returned home “today”—or “at this point”—because the mother and father had failed to sufficiently rehabilitate themselves. And it held that the children’s “tremendous need for permanency and stability” could not be met while preserving the parents’ rights within a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement.
¶5 Six weeks after the termination order was entered, the adoptive placement with the uncle failed. The children returned to state custody in Utah.
¶6 After the kinship placement failed, the father and mother filed motions for post-judgment relief. The mother sought 60(b)(6) relief in light of the “extraordinary circumstances” of the failure of the kinship placement. The father filed a 60(b)(6) motion on the same grounds. He also sought relief under 60(b)(5), asserting that the failed kinship placement meant that the judgment was “no longer equitable.” The juvenile court denied the motions.
¶7 The mother and father appealed. The court of appeals certified the matter to this court based on a perceived need for our review of “a challenge to the current appellate standard of review in child welfare proceedings” and to consider “an issue regarding the effect of statutory changes on supreme court case law.”
¶8 The mother and father raise different claims of error on appeal. The mother challenges only the juvenile court’s findings, made at an evidentiary permanency hearing and allegedly at a subsequent review hearing, that she appeared “under the influence” at various hearings. She asserts that a judge is not qualified to make such findings without expert testimony. And she contends that the court denied her due process of law by making the findings without giving her notice and an opportunity to be heard.
¶9 The father challenges the juvenile court’s best interest determination2 and the court’s denial of his motions for post-judgment relief. As an initial matter, the father asks us to conduct de novo review of termination proceedings—and overturn the deferential standard of review established in State ex rel. B.R., 2007 UT 82, 171 P.3d 435. He also asks us to require specific factual findings and legal conclusions in parental rights termination orders. Regardless of our decision on the appropriate standard of review, the father contends that the juvenile court erred in concluding that termination of the father’s rights was “strictly necessary” to promote the “best interest” of the children.
¶10 We affirm in part and reverse and vacate in part. First, we note that the mother’s claims are unpreserved and hold that she has failed to carry the burden of establishing plain error. Second, we reject the father’s request that we abandon a deferential standard of review of a best interest determination but find threshold legal errors in the juvenile court’s best interest analysis—in the assessment of whether the father had made sufficient progress in his rehabilitation under Utah Code section 78A-6-509(1)(b), and in the assessment of whether termination of parental rights is “strictly necessary” under Utah Code section 78A-6-507. Third, we vacate and remand for a new best interest determination under the law as clarified in this opinion. In so doing, we note that the mother failed to highlight the legal errors identified by the father in her briefs on appeal but conclude that the mother’s rights should be on the table on remand in the unique circumstances of this case.
¶11 The mother challenges the juvenile court’s findings that she appeared “under the influence” at court hearings. She asserts that the judge is not qualified to make such findings without expert testimony. And she claims that the court infringed her right to due process by making these findings without notice that the observations were being made and without affording her an opportunity to respond.
¶12 None of these points was preserved in the juvenile court, however. To succeed on appeal, the mother would therefore need to make a showing of plain error—that “(1) an error exists; (2) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (3) the error is harmful, i.e., absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome.” State v. Low, 2008 UT 58, ¶ 20, 192 P.3d 867 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).3 And the mother has failed to carry that burden.
¶13 We have previously upheld a juvenile court’s legal conclusions based on observations of “outbursts” made in open court. In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶¶ 44–45, 266 P.3d 739. And the juvenile court in this case did not even go so far as to make a legal conclusion. It relied on its observation of the mother in court to require her to be subjected to testing for substance use—a follow-up under a standing order requiring ongoing substance abuse testing.4 So we do not see how it could have been error—and certainly not an obvious error—for the court to use its observations as a basis for such testing where the mother’s sobriety was already at issue.
¶14 Nor do we see a basis for concluding that any alleged error was prejudicial. In the termination order, the court refers to its “personal observations” of the mother only once—as a single consideration in a set of reasons supporting one of the five grounds for termination found by the court. And earlier in the proceedings, the court continued reunification services for the mother despite making a concurrent finding that “[t]hree quarters of the times the Mother is in court it appears she [is] under the influence of drugs”— and despite terminating reunification services as to the father in the same evidentiary permanency hearing. The mother has not established that there is any likelihood that her parental rights would not have been terminated if the juvenile court had not ordered testing on the basis of its observations, or if it had afforded the mother the right to respond that she asserts as a matter of due process.
¶15 The father challenges the termination of his parental rights on two grounds. He contends that the juvenile court erred in (a) concluding that termination of his rights was “strictly necessary” in the “best interest” of the children; and (b) denying his motions for post-judgment relief. We reverse on the first ground and decline to reach the second because it is mooted by our threshold decision.
¶16 The father prefaces his challenge to the juvenile court’s best interest analysis with a request that we overrule our longstanding case law on the standard of review of parental rights termination orders—requesting that we replace the established deferential standard of review with a de novo review for correctness. But we rejected parallel requests in two recent decisions. See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶¶ 1, 3, 491 P.3d 867; State ex rel. E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 13, 496 P.3d 58. And the father has not identified a persuasive ground for reconsidering these decisions.
¶17 In E.R. we clarified that the best interest inquiry is a fact-like “mixed determination of law and fact” that is subject to deferential review. 2021 UT 36, ¶¶ 17, 22. Appellate deference, of course, is not absolute. The juvenile court’s best interest analysis may be set aside if it is “against the ‘clear weight of the evidence.’” Id. ¶ 6. It is also subject to reversal where it is premised on a threshold legal error. See id. ¶ 16 (noting that we “afford [n]o deference” to the juvenile court’s “analysis of abstract legal questions” (alteration in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).
¶18 We reverse the juvenile court’s termination of the father’s parental rights on this basis. The juvenile court’s order was infected by two legal errors. And those errors foreclose the usual basis for deference to the conclusion that termination of the father’s rights was “strictly necessary” in the “best interest” of the children under Utah Code section 78A-6-507(1) (2020).5 See Rocky Ford Irrigation Co. v. Kents Lake Reservoir Co., 2020 UT 47, ¶ 78, 469 P.3d 1003 (citation omitted) (holding that a district court’s findings were not owed deference where they were “infected by legal error”).
¶19 In terminating the father’s parental rights, the juvenile court concluded that it would be “neglectful” to “[r]eturn the children to the Father today.” (Emphasis added.) It also found that a reunification of the children with the father would introduce a significant “safety risk” “at this time.” (Emphasis added.) And it raised the concern that the father might not “be successful outside of treatment” given the lack of “any indication of future success” based on “the Father’s past.”
¶20 These statements are premised on legal error. In a case where the child is not in the parent’s physical custody, the court must consider a set of “specific considerations” in assessing whether termination is strictly necessary in the best interest of children. UTAH CODE § 78A-6-509. And the listed considerations include “the effort the parent or parents have made to adjust their circumstances, conduct, or conditions to make it in the child’s best interest to return [the child to the] home after a reasonable length of time.” Id. § 78A-6509(1)(b) (emphasis added).
¶21 The statute does not establish a specific timeframe for parents to “adjust their circumstances, conduct, or conditions.” But it does afford a parent a “reasonable length of time” to make any necessary adjustments. And that requires the court to consider whether any needed adjustments were made within a reasonable time.
¶22 The court retains a measure of discretion in deciding on the length of the “reasonable” time.6 But by statute it must exercise that discretion. And the juvenile court failed to do so here. It held that the father “ha[d] failed to appropriately adjust” his “circumstances, conduct, or conditions to make return in the children’s best interest.” In so doing, it failed to consider whether he had had a “reasonable length of time” to do so.7 And it exacerbated the problem by focusing on static assessments that it would be “neglectful” to “[r]eturn the children to the Father today” and would introduce a significant “safety risk” if they returned to him “at this time.”
¶23 The juvenile court also premised its termination decision on concerns about the “tremendous need for permanency and stability” of the children. It considered the possibility of preserving the father’s legal rights while awarding permanent custody to a guardian. But it rejected that move on the ground that it “would not . . . offer the same degree of permanency as an adoption,” given that a permanent guardianship could be terminated at the request of the guardian or at least subject to visitation by the father. And it held that this “lack of stability would be harmful for the children.”
¶24 This too was error. The court was right to consider the feasibility of a permanent guardianship. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 66–67, 472 P.3d 827 (explaining that the “strictly necessary” analysis requires consideration of the possibility of “feasible options” like awarding custody to a permanent guardian (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)). But it fell into legal error in concluding that this option would not provide the “same degree of permanency as an adoption.” That is not the question under our law. A permanent guardianship by definition does not offer the same degree of permanency as an adoption. And there is always some risk that the permanent guardianship could come to an end, or be affected by visitation by the parent. If these categorical concerns were enough, termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board. But such categorical analysis is not in line with the statutory standard.
¶25 By statute, the juvenile court must assess whether a permanent guardianship can “equally protect and benefit” the children in the case before it. G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 75 (citation omitted). That standard is not met by the categorical concern that a permanent guardianship is not as stable or permanent as an adoption. It requires analysis of the particularized circumstances of the case before the court. No such analysis is presented here. And the court’s categorical dismissal of the possibility of a permanent guardianship is a further ground for reversal of the juvenile court’s decision.
¶26 The above legal errors undermine our confidence in the juvenile court’s basis for terminating the father’s parental rights. They also foreclose the need for us to consider the father’s challenge to the denial of his motions for post-judgment relief. The correctness of the denial of those motions is mooted by our decision to reverse in light of the legal errors in the parental termination order.
¶27 The father has established that the juvenile court’s termination order was infected by the above-noted legal errors. That leaves the question of the effect of those errors on our disposition on appeal. We conclude that a remand to the juvenile court is appropriate. And we hold that both parents’ legal rights should be on the table on remand.
¶28 The juvenile court’s threshold legal errors foreclose the usual basis for deference to its factual findings and mixed determinations. In the face of such errors, an appellate court has at least two options. It may reverse and remand to the lower court for rehearing under a correct legal standard.8 Or it may review the lower court’s findings under a non-deferential standard of review.9 We take the former course of action here in light of the important role that our juvenile courts play in applying a complex body of law to a matter encompassing an extensive factual and procedural record.
¶29 In the parties’ briefing on appeal, only the father identified the above-noted legal errors as a basis for reversal. The mother’s appeal was limited to her challenge to the juvenile court’s findings that she appeared “under the influence” in court.
¶30 The father urges this as a basis for concluding that the mother is foreclosed from participating in the proceedings on remand, or from having her rights on the table in a new “best interest” analysis in line with the refinements in our law set forth above. See supra ¶¶ 21–22, 24–25. He notes that a claim is generally waived if not raised on appeal. See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶¶ 15–16, 416 P.3d 443. And he asks us to hold that the mother forfeited her stake in a remand under claims of legal error that she failed to advance on appeal.
¶31 The father’s position finds some threshold footing in our law. As a general rule, our courts respect the prerogatives of the parties in deciding which claims to pursue (or forgo) in litigation. See Utah Stream Access Coalition v. VR Acquisitions, LLC, 2019 UT 7, ¶¶ 36–37, 439 P.3d 593. In deference to those prerogatives, and in the interest of judicial economy and repose, the parties are generally stuck with the moves they make in litigation. Patterson v. Patterson, 2011 UT 68, ¶¶ 15–17, 266 P.3d 828. Our courts do not lightly second-guess the parties by reviving a claim they have forfeited by their pleading or briefing decisions.10
¶32 The mother presumably would be foreclosed from participating in the proceedings on remand if she had failed to file an appeal.11 But the mother did file an appeal. And the father has cited no case law that controls in the unusual circumstances presented here—where two appellants filed briefs on appeal and one of them has identified a legal error that affected not just both of the appellants but also the interests of other parties to this proceeding (the children).
¶33 In these circumstances, we are reluctant to give conclusive, controlling effect to the briefing decisions of the parties. The juvenile court’s legal missteps infected its decision to terminate both the father’s and the mother’s legal rights.12 And those missteps may bear significant consequences not just for the parents but for their children. The rights and interests of the parents and the children are not only substantial but intertwined. On remand, the decision whether to terminate one parent’s rights could be affected by the decision whether to terminate the other’s rights. And the decision whether one or both parents should retain their rights may have substantial bearing on the analysis of the best interest of the children.13
¶34 With these concerns in mind, we conclude that the mother’s briefing decisions should not foreclose her from participating in the case on remand. Both parents’ legal rights should be on the table.
¶35 In remanding, we are not foreclosing the possibility that concerns expressed in the juvenile court’s order—such as the risk and effects of domestic violence—may be a sufficient basis for termination of the parents’ legal rights. Nor are we suggesting that the parents have not yet had a “reasonable length of time” to adjust their “circumstances, conduct, or conditions.” On these and other points, we are simply holding that the juvenile court’s opinion is too affected by legal error to merit deference on appeal. And we are sending the matter back to the juvenile court to exercise its discretion under a correct formulation of the law.
¶36 We vacate the juvenile court’s order terminating the parental rights of the parents. In so doing, we leave in place any threshold orders not challenged on appeal—such as the court’s order establishing the parents’ unfitness. But we remand the case for rehearing on the question whether termination of their parental rights is strictly necessary in the best interest of the children, under the governing legal standard as clarified in this opinion.